The taboo around suicide makes it easier to ignore

What do you think is the biggest cause of death among men under 49?

Cancer? Heart disease?

The answer is something perhaps far sadder because it could be far more easily prevented – suicide.

The statistics around suicide, particularly male suicide, are chilling.

Every week, 84 men are officially recorded as having killed themselves in Britain. Globally, someone takes their own life every 40 seconds.

But shocking as these figures are, they may not even represent the true extent of the problem. Many apparent suicides receive open verdicts by coroners who, understandably, are driven by concern for the feelings of bereaved families.

Some researchers believe that the total number of suicides has been underestimated by up to 50%. And the World Health Organisation state that, for every adult who kills themselves, more than 20 attempt to do so.

It’s easy to get blinded by statistics, but you need to remember that behind every one of these figures, there’s a person who isn’t around anymore. There are also parents, spouses or partners, and friends who have been left behind, trying to understand what went wrong, and whether that person might still be with them if things had been different.

Twenty years ago, my friend killed himself. There were no warning signs, no major family or work issues…. he just pushed his car off the drive in the middle of the night, so his family wouldn’t hear him leave, drove to a cliff and jumped. He left a widow and children who, even now, live with the devastation that suicide brings.

I have had a long standing interest in mental health issues, and used to lead nationally on mental health for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners.

This work led me to appreciate the prevalence of suicide, particularly among those who have experienced mental health problems – and I now lead nationally on suicide prevention for the organisation.

The majority of people looking at suicide prevention are health professionals, but this expertise needs to be spread much wider. We need to see other organisations, including large private sector employers, getting involved in this issue and helping raise awareness and training.

We cannot and should not expect everyone to become counsellors or crisis support workers, but a basic understanding of how to spot the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other common mental health problems is a skill more people should develop. Knowledge of what to say to those who may be struggling and how to refer them to services who can help, is another important skill more of us should have.

There is also a huge problem with suicide among people in custody, or people who have recently left custody.

In the 12 months up to March 2019, 87 people in prison custody killed themselves – up 14 from the previous year – and the number was as high as 119 in 2016.

There were also 285 suicides in 2017-18 among offenders in the community, either serving a court ordered community sentence or being supervised on licence after release from prison – an increase from the year before.

People on probation are also more likely to kill themselves than the general population, with large numbers killing themselves within the first week of release from custody.

A lot of work clearly needs to be done to raise awareness, as well as improve training and create better risk assessments, both in custody environments and in the probation service.

The saddest thing about suicide might be that, although it is such a huge killer, we almost never talk about it and very rarely hear it being discussed in the media.

Perhaps because of its past – suicide was a crime until 1961 and we still talk about it in those terms when we say people have ‘committed’ suicide – or perhaps because it is regarded by some as  shameful and unnatural, suicide remains a taboo subject. But can you imagine this wall of silence existing around a medical condition which claims so many lives?

Taboos make problems easy to ignore. If we are ever to address the issue of suicide, and make significant reductions in the number of people who take their own lives every year, the single thing we need to do is to lose our fear of talking about it.

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